‘Excuse me, but does anyone know whose helicopter is parked outside? It’s on the square and we were rather hoping to have a game of cricket today.’ These are words I never expected to deliver to a pub awash with Sunday lunchers until they were spilling out of my mouth. There are other words we never expect to say, such as ‘of course, I was plumb LBW’ or those fateful words ‘I think I’m done’.
They say that you always know when it’s time, but sapientia post eventum is not much consolation. Cricket is awash with those whose reputations blinded fans and selectors to their decline, if not their fall. Class is permanent, form temporary, or so they say. But when the eyes dim, the reflexes dull, and the fire burns low, no amount of class can take their place. They’ll come good, we say. Remember that innings? we say. Soon, however, we draw the air through our teeth and shake our heads, even as we hope they’ve one last hurrah left in them to light up their inevitable exit.
Early in the 2017 season I played a game for my old club on the helicopter-dried wicket behind The Yew Tree in East Sussex. I kept wicket, tidily enough, and during tea the skipper asked me to open our innings. I long ago learnt to take what I’m offered and so, fatigue notwithstanding, I strode out to the middle with a talented and well-coached fourteen-year old. He cast rather disparaging glances at my technique (it is ravaged by Parkinson’s and sheer ineptitude), but soon he and the following youngster got themselves out, though I enjoyed a fruitful partnership with the third young ‘un. When we were thirty or forty runs from victory, I retired, reckoning someone else should have a go. I was also extremely fatigued. And three runs off my second highest score. But I knew it was time.
By the season’s end, I felt much the same. It had been mixed, especially behind the timbers. Time and tide, after all, wait for no man, while pride, left out in the open for long enough, soon turns to hubris. I’m often told how brave I am, how inspiring that I still turn out every weekend, Parkinson’s be damned, to crouch behind three sticks and watch as the ball sails past me at regular intervals. It’s not me who’s brave, I say, it’s the skippers who pick me.
This season, I all too often felt the bony finger of fate on my shoulder, and all too often it was accompanied by a low whisper, ‘you’re letting the boys down.’ Missed stumpings, dropped catches, fluffed run-outs. Worse than this, my confidence was at an all-time low. Had the time had finally come?
Turns out it had. Not to hang up the gloves (whatever made you think that?), but to think about training another stumper. While this might feel like a turkey not only voting, but actively canvassing, for Christmas, in this way I can make sure that when I do declare time, there’s plenty of batting to come.
There’s a little bit of context necessary here. I wrote this on the train home from London to Brighton on Nov 30th, 2017, having learnt that the deadline for the Wisden writing competition was extremely nigh. Obviously it failed to tickle the judges’ fancy, but I thought it interesting anyway. Especially now that nets are starting …